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What It Means When I Say No

I am not saying it because I want to. It’s because I need to.

In 2016, I faced a lot of my fears head-on. I looked down on the River Thames from the top of the London Eye, I rode a roller coaster for the first time in a decade, and I traveled solo for the first time ever. And yet I am still afraid to say no to nearly everything.

This fear has been with me my entire life. Instead of turning people down, my response is always an automatic, robotic yes. Yes, I can do this. Yes, I can help you with that. Yes, I can put what you need before what I need, which is just a break and a hug, probably. I am, at my core, a people-pleaser — a trait that has landed me in countless undesired situations including, but not limited to: writing for the yearbook (although I was not in the yearbook), marching with the marching band (although I was not in the marching band), and going to church camp a second and then a third time (although I barely wanted to go the first). I have worked on committees, volunteered, sat through hours-long meetings, and stretched myself thinner and thinner until I’ve barely had enough energy to do the things I actually wanted to do. Eventually, I just morph into a ball of stress, anxiety, and tears until I somehow manage to accomplish everything. Then the cycle starts all over again.

I don't doubt that this fear has a lot to do with being a woman. For so long, women have been expected to do not what they want but what their gender role dictates. That misogyny is still alive and well today, and remains particularly resistant to change in small towns like my hometown. As a child, I was given a clear-cut outline of what a woman should be and how she should act. I learned I was supposed to be polite and considerate, quiet and thoughtful, and internalized these qualities. In my head, saying no is incompatible with the woman I was raised to be, and even as I have grown older and more liberal, I still find myself suppressing the urge to speak up out of fear of seeming “bitchy.”

The lasting influence of these expectations was particularly clear to me last month, the majority of which I spent dreading the moment I'd have to quit my job. I’d been offered the opportunity to serve on a student advisory board for Better Make Room (a campaign started by Michelle Obama to encourage more young people to go to college) and knew I had to focus my time and energy on this amazing new responsibility. Although being chosen to serve on the board was the biggest honor I’d ever received, I was terrified to tell my boss I was leaving. I knew it might be difficult for her to find a replacement, and a cloud of guilt followed me around until the day I finally made the call. Tears splashed on my phone and my fingers hovered above the numbers. I felt embarrassed of my childish fear of disappointing people, of saying no.

But I did it — and my boss wasn't even mad. Still, the process was not an easy, clean break for me, but rather messy and gut-wrenching, like a bad breakup. I had spent so much time feeling overwhelmed with anxiety that I failed to recognize that I was ultimately making a good choice and moving on to something better.

It was then that I realized that I have to stop saying yes to things that don’t, can’t, or won’t make me happy, and start fearlessly and unapologetically choosing what is best for me. The next day, I sent an email to the committee leader of a council I had joined — another thing I didn't have time for but had somehow still said yes to — and told her I was quitting. But this time, I didn’t cry or hesitate. I just did it.

That moment reminded me of the fearless 6-year-old version of myself, the sassy girl who said no when presented with a teaspoon of medicine for an ear infection. “No!” she shouted, then proceeded to sit in time-out for an entire day out of purely relentless, bullish resistance.

I think she could confidently say no because she was honest with herself. While that 6-year-old was, admittedly, almost always wrong (especially about medicine), she definitely never let a fear of speaking her mind get in the way of what she wanted. I have to stop being afraid of what people will think of me or what they’ll call me if I say no. I have to let them know when I’m anxious and overwhelmed, and help them understand that I am not saying no because I want to, but because I need to.

I have finally accepted that in the end it’s far better to directly tell someone no than to privately suffer out out of fear of being deemed selfish. Saying no isn’t inherently selfish, and even if it is, sometimes it’s OK to be a little selfish — to take care of yourself.

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